In Nioh 2, the picturesque hills of 16th-century Japan are patrolled not just by soldiers, this being a time of war, but by monsters—as if the country, itchy with conflict, had broken out in a rash of fantasy. By way of a balm, along comes Toyotomi Hideyoshi, whom we play as. Hideyoshi was a real-life lord, general, politician, and samurai (how many in Whitehall can boast that?) who cooled the chaos of the period, unified a fragmented land, and who, according to the game at least, was prone to lapses into a spectral plane—the way you or I might suffer a migraine. Far from an imposition, however, these trips, into what’s called the Yokai realm, give our hero a half-demon edge: in my case, the ability to transform into a fiery, club-wielding beast, as though Hideyoshi were plugged into Hell’s power grid.

That is a new addition to a combat system that is already brimming—or bloated, depending on your position—with complexity. Nioh 2, like its predecessor, is modelled closely on the mechanics of FromSoftware’s Dark Souls (whose influence is now as pervasive as the slow-drip darkness of its world), and it proves, with cheerful pep, that the long shadow of another work is a fine place to shine. The Soulslike subgenre is stuffed with games whose creative flames have grown dim, but Nioh 2 builds on a proven system with a selection of smart bolt-ons. The Ki pulse returns (a savvy crib of the Active Reload, from Gears of War), which enables you to regain gulps of stamina after your attacks, with a well-timed tap of the R1 button. It gives fights a measured, rhythmic feel—like a waltzer wandering on and off the beat—and it’s an excellent means of rebellion against the stubborn rule of the stamina bar. No longer are you doomed to a gasping death; so long as you pace your greedy strikes with Ki pulses, you can prolong an assault to devastating lengths.

Compare the clashes in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice—FromSoftware’s own take on the same setting—which scrapped the stamina bar entirely and, as a result, felt steel-springed and spry. The fighting in Nioh 2 isn’t as free; it’s phlegmatic and rigid, its rules are enforced like a dance drill, and you feel the need for posture—to regain your Ki, yes, but also to bolster the walls of your own discipline—in a more organic, less mechanical, way than you did with Sekiro. There is also, it must be said, a lot to hold in your head in Nioh 2. This will come as joyous news to those who like their battles skewed towards the bookish, crowded not only with stats, to consider when levelling up, but with strategies that twine themselves to the various tools at your disposal. There are spears, the better to prod your foes from distance; swords, to do the daily rounds; axes, available on their own or in a fetching pair; and the kusarigama, a kind of mini sickle that you swing on a chain. Throw in a choice of three stances, which modify your movements and power output, and a slew of Yokai-charged skills, and you are soon swimming in strategy.

Some will drown. The game makes no attempt at new initiations; it’s aimed at the sort of audience that waits—if not with bated breath—with bared teeth for games like this, ready to bite hard into its challenge. Among my many failures is the inability to claw my way out of this camp; I remain a sucker for the Souls formula, and I can muster nothing but respect for Nioh 2, and marvel at the precision and skill with which it has been furnished.

The developer is Team Ninja, whose defining work is the outlandish Ninja Gaiden series. Before FromSoftware released Demon’s Souls, in 2009, and became synonymous with scalding difficulty, it was Team Ninja who wore the crown—presiding over its fair share of gnawed fingernails, torn-out hair, and boiled tempers. When Nioh came out, in 2017, I had two reactions. First, I politely swallowed a sigh; here was a studio re-tilling the soil that FromSoftware had already so fruitfully sown, and, worse still, depriving us of a new Ninja Gaiden in the process. And second, having actually played Nioh, I loved it. It was a lesson in the enduring combination—vital to any medium—of theft and good taste. Moreover, it was crammed with reassuring quantities of Team Ninja’s superior nonsense. How can you not tumble into love with a game that begins with a superpowered jailbreak from the Tower of London, before shifting to the shores of a ghoul-infested Japan?

Nioh 2, while equally jam-packed with the magical, feels less kitschy and crazed. For a start, Hideyoshi is yours to create, which, no matter the specificity of your tinkering, always guarantees a cypher. (The star of the first game, the westerner William Adams, with his platinum tresses and uneven Irish brogue, always seemed the result of an overzealous attempt at character customisation, but he had pulpy presence.) The story, meanwhile, sees history interlocked with layers of mysticism, with a focus on binding a fractured nation, and, as such, it feels more inward and intricate. It’s also where the game’s posture breaks, so to speak.

The curse of any Soulslike is that, sooner or later, it must face up to the fact that there is no such thing. With Nioh 2, Team Ninja has done a better job than anyone else at making smart innovations to a treasured design template, but you can’t innovate art, or the rolling fogs of sensation that envelop you when you’re in the company of something you can’t explain. Functioning FromSoftware addicts, looking for a fix, will find nothing to rival the funereal chill of Bloodborne or the frozen despair that presides over Dark Souls, and the way that your actions, in both games, are mired in the mood. Instead what you have is a snake, blown up to bus-size, with two arms that also happen to be snakes, used to deliver boxer’s combos. (That particular boss fight might provoke fits of frustration, but it won’t provoke thoughts.) In comparison with those of FromSoftware, Team Ninja’s worlds have a rustling tabloid quality. The combat is on a rarefied plane, and the two elements don’t hang together. If only someone could unite them.

Developer: Team Ninja

Publisher: Sony

Available on: PlayStation 4

Release Date: March 13, 2020

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